A Survivor’s Guide to Malaysia
I guess I’ve grown up a bit in the near year that I’ve been in Malaysia. Maybe now I’m what you would called a seasoned expat. At some degree of personal expense, I now know what one has to do to survive in Southeast Asia. You can’t come here as I did with an expectation that it’s the West but just populated with smooth skinned, black-haired people. Oh no. It’s an entirely different world and way of life. Following is my list of what you have to do to survive.
1. Surrender to the Mall.
We don’t call it “MallAsia” for nothing. Just do it. Surrender now. Step up to the entrance, let that glass door slide open and welcome you into its polished floor and air-conditioned interior. In the U.S., the shopping mall may be your last resort but in Malaysia, malls serve a multitude of purposes. They aren’t just for buying a pair of shoes. They are the town square where you go to people watch, to eat, to buy groceries, to sip a cup of coffee. And you get to do it all in a rat-free and smoke-free environment. It is perhaps the ONLY place in Malaysia where you can’t drive a motorcycle.
When I first arrived I refused to go to the malls unless it was to be used as a shortcut to someplace else. After having my boyfriend smacked in the face by a homophobic gang, after many shouting and pointing matches with uncivilized car and motorcycle drivers, after watching rats jump up on the hawker food stall, I’ve come to realize that the outdoors simply isn’t your friend here. You’re better off tucked inside the climate controlled shopping mall with CCTV and a team of fearless Nepalese security guards watching over your every move.
Previously in order to get groceries, I had to venture out along the filthy Gombak River, stepping over the garbage, past the aggressive transgender prostitutes making smooching noises and following me. I had to wait at the corner with the suggestion of a traffic light. Then when the light turns red and about 40% of the vehicles stop, I would boldly shove off the curb toward the other side with my right hand put out in a “talk to the hand” gesture which remarkably does stop traffic. I would walk past the legions of shop vendors giving stink eye to the only white guy brave enough to venture into Chow Kit. I would walk past the painful shrieking of a chicken getting its throat cut and thrown into a barrel to bleed out, wiggle through the cars stuck in a jam and inhale a few pounds of volatile organic compounds at the entrance to the decapitated goats market. I would watch the prices jump up as my white skin moved through the market stalls.
Going to buy a pineapple was an all day affair. It was about an hour outside and the rest of the day recovering from the assault on my senses. I had to come home, pour a nice big cocktail, clutch a teddy bear, and look at pictures of butterflies and bluebirds on Google Images.
And then one day something happened. A shopping mall opened up next to my apartment building and I was introduced to the concept of the modern Malaysian grocery store in the basement. All the malls have them. The prices are fixed and so my white skin doesn’t get me the reverse discount. There aren’t 40 goats heads bleeding all over the floor with flies laying maggots on them. No one gives me stink eye. And it doesn’t smell like rotting dumpsters. A grocery store in a mall is respite from the stinky reality of street side Malaysia.
So I have graduated from the Kuala Lumpur School of Hard Knocks after a year of hard time at the Malay and Chinese markets. Now I shop listening to Muzak and enjoy watching someone with a dust mop gliding over the shiny white floors. And you know what? The prices aren’t much more or sometimes less when I factor in the “white tax” that was added on at the open air market. Malaysians figured this out long ago but no, it was I who thought I should have the “authentic Malaysian experience” of shopping in the outdoor markets. I have surrendered to the mall and I’m better for it.
2. Just don’t walk anywhere.
Just don’t do it. If you brave the streets, you will fall into a hole and rats will eat your face, or worse you’ll get run over by some creepy uncle on his motorcycle on the sidewalk. Or someone will snatch your purse. And you have to smell things like food stalls cooking with balacan (fermented shrimp paste). Or you have to walk past an overflowing dumpster (which is redundant to say because they’re all overflowing) which smells something like spaghetti vomit. You must realize that in Southeast Asia, as a pedestrian, you are automatically a loser and a moving target worthy of being run over. In the West, if you put your toe into a crosswalk, drivers will stop and wave politely as you pass in front of them. They don’t wish to face the ire of police and the judicial system which will strike you down and leave you without a driving license should you ever, ever hit a pedestrian or even run a red light. And so to survive here, I’ve had to hang my head and my pedestrian pride. We walkers and cyclists in the West do so to save fuel or because it’s good for your health. But here it’s the mark of poverty to be outside a car, even if that car is stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
If I am to use a sidewalk (usually shared with parked cars and motorbikes) I must walk out the door as one walks to his execution, handcuffed and defeated and knowing that the last meal I ate may indeed be my last meal. But better yet, just don’t walk. Malaysians don’t walk and for good reason. They would drive from the sofa to the fridge if they could and I’m sure someone indeed does. Thirty or 40 years ago, people in Southeast Asia rode bicycles and took the ox cart to the market. They are not about to go back to that hell! If you are not a car owner in Southeast Asia, you’re clearly retarded.
This is San Francisco. Just strike this from your mind. In Malaysia, you will never enjoy a car free crosswalk or full observance of a red light. Just forget about this, keep your head down and accept your fate as a pedestrian.
3. Stop caring about the environment.
Southeast Asians must know that the environment is a goner because they don’t waste their efforts trying to preserve it. They’re smart and practical people. Why kick a dead body, right? It’s dead! So don’t waste your effort trying to re-use your plastic bag at the store. They will put your items in a new bag and then put that in the old one you’ve handed them. And then they will put a PAID sticker on it so you can’t reuse any of them. They don’t get the concept of too much plastic waste. It simply doesn’t register.
Don’t tell someone to turn off their vehicle while waiting in front of the hotel or reading the paper or napping in a parking garage with the engine running, fouling the air. Don’t try to lecture people on why they shouldn’t throw their garbage in the river. It’s futile. You as the Little Goody Two Shoes from the West will drive yourself mad and make a lot of enemies. Just accept that the environment here is ruined and they don’t care so why should you? The rivers are in fact very useful and handy garbage conveyor belts. They take the garbage somewhere else which is really what it’s all about — out of sight, out of mind. And the air is what magically blows your exhaust somewhere else so that it’s no longer your problem. Before I leave Malaysia, I will have to try throwing my garbage into the river just to feel how liberating it must be.
4. Do not waste your time with common courtesies.
Don’t smile or say hello or hold a door open for anyone. If you do, they will instantly think of you as here to serve them and therefore unworthy of gratitude. No such thing as a thank you will ever be expressed. The exception is with the very rare sighting of a Japanese tourist who will bow and Sank You and hush their children in the elevator. Malaysians will jam the close button on the elevator before you’ve even gotten through the doors and their kids will be riotously pressing all the buttons and screaming. Why? Because everyone in Malaysia is in a big fat hurry because they’re important people and we must recognize and respect this. Remember, a couple generations ago they were doing uncivilized things like riding bicycles and eating off of banana leaves and we don’t want to get in the way of their progress as a nation. This is a forward thinking nation on the move toward being “Fully Developed by 2020.” Besides, smiling and being friendly made me stand out as the weird American and now I just want to blend in. I want to be a forward thinking Malaysian instead of some pesky polite guy with old fashioned manners.
5. Think of yourself only and don’t follow the rules.
When I arrived in KL, I found myself always at odds with people over things like spitting in public, or smoking in non-smoking places, or pushing onto a train before people got off. And now I realize how much freedom this culture has to just do what you want without regard for others. The rule of the land is that rules are only suggestions and you should follow them only if it’s convenient for you to do so. And if you break a rule and get caught, just throw a few Ringgit at the situation and buy yourself out of trouble.
So when you’re annoyed with the traffic jam, feel free to just drive up on the sidewalk. When you need a parking space and there are none to be had, just wedge your car in between a couple of others and head off without the slightest bit of guilt that you may have blocked their egress. Guilt or shame for such things are wasted emotions here. Just as is integrity — cheating and bribery is a way of life. So you might as well try a little cheating yourself. It’s liberating. You’ll feel right at home. Take what you can. Take it all in fact. If you find a couple of free parking spaces, why not take both of them so you have extra room to load your groceries? It’s amazing how much support there is for this kind of behavior, so why be righteous and do the “right” thing? Just help yourself because if you don’t someone else surely will and you might as well be the better for having taken, pushed, and wedged yourself in. You can rest knowing that no one is going to scold you for your selfishness here. And don’t even say, “Oh it’s sad that people act like this.” That’s holding Malaysia to a higher standard which is a waste of your time, chump. It’s not sad, it’s just what is.
Malaysian neo-Nazi or fashion victim?
6. If you see something, don’t say something.
One night while shopping along Petaling Street in KL, Chuan and I came across a Chinese family selling t-shirts emblazoned with swastikas (I know the difference between the Buddhist and Nazi symbology and these were unmistakably the Nazi variety). I walked past their stall and the swastikas began burning into my brain until I stopped and told Chu that I had to go back and voice my concerns. He stood by as I scolded the vendors telling them that they should not be selling t-shirts representing genocide and hatred. We got into a heated argument and the woman, man, and son all told me, “This is Malaysia, we can do whatever we want. Go to hell. Fuck you. Go back to your country!” That might be the point where I gave up trying to be ethical. An entire family of Chinese standing by their decision to promote racism and evil. They’re not even Muslim — what vested interest do they have in promulgating such imagery? The answer of course is to make a buck without concern for the repercussions or greater meaning. And that in essence the ethos of most of Asia.
All this to say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I do now as the Malaysians do — just think of myself. Am I tainted by my experience here? No. I’d just say I’m more culturally appropriate. And this has strangely made me a happier person. It was a lonely walk on the high road all the time, picking up the trash Malaysians throw down, literally and figuratively. It’s tough being Glinda the good witch when everyone else is having fun being the flying monkeys. In short, if they do something, why shouldn’t you as well? And if they don’t do something why should you? It’s their country and anything else would be deviant and disrespectful of all that they have created. It might even be considered arrogant that we in the West know better how to run their country than they do. And who wants to be arrogant?
We’ll see how much Malaysia has progressed by 2020. But with any luck, I’ll be watching from afar.